National Collegiate Honors Council


Date of this Version



Published in Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council, Spring/Summer 2015, Volume 16, Number 1.


Copyright © 2015 by the National Collegiate Honors Council.


Appointed head military attaché in Hitler’s Berlin in 1935, career U.S. Army officer Truman Smith harbored no illusions about the challenges he faced. As he recalled later in his memoirs: “I saw at firsthand how inadequately organized, staffed, and financed the Military Intelligence Division was. It became clear to me also that Military Intelligence was the orphan branch of the General Staff and the army as a whole and that military attachés lacked prestige and were little regarded or listened to” (26). Despite inadequate support and seemingly insurmountable obstacles to access, Smith produced over the next three years a series of startling yet remarkably accurate reports on the Nazi military buildup that held the potential to influence deeply the course of American military and diplomatic policy. Far from achieving their intended influence, however, Smith’s reports drew the otherwise obscure military attaché into a political maelstrom not of his own making—a tempest that owed much to Smith’s association with famed but increasingly controversial American aviator Charles Lindbergh, whose celebrity Smith exploited to gain critical access to Luftwaffe airfields. Amid the heated polemic that swirled about him, the stunningly accurate intelligence information contained in Smith’s reports languished in obscurity. On detailed examination, the case of Truman Smith demonstrates in a profound manner the ways that domestic political agendas and controversies clouded U.S. foreign policy-making in the years leading up to the Second World War. Although the international order today is fundamentally different from that of the 1930s, Smith’s case may also hold important lessons for the early twenty-first-century United States concerning the unforeseen costs of polarization and a political culture in which opposing parties often dismiss even simple factual information put forward by their supposed political enemies.